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In Sierra Leone, loving in the time of Ebola

Ebola, spread through direct contact with bodily fluids, sparks concern over intimacy and sex

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — It has been four months since Messia Dukuray has had any physical contact with her husband. They don’t sleep in the same bed, hug or even share food. Her husband is a surgeon at a hospital in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, and although he doesn’t treat Ebola patients, they decided to be extra safe.

Eleven doctors in Sierra Leone have died from Ebola since the outbreak began, and she worries about her husband’s safety. They have been married for three years, and she said abstaining from any physical contact or affection is one of the most difficult things she’s had to do. 

The deadly virus ravaging Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea is transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids, including semen, saliva, sweat, diarrhea and vomit. Fear over contracting or spreading the virus has transformed romantic relationships and affected how people interact in general.

“I really want to have kids, but we don’t do anything — no kissing, no sex,” said Dukuray sitting on her porch in Freetown. “I need my husband, but it just seems too risky.”

This Ebola outbreak, which has killed nearly 7,000 people, began in Guinea and then spread to Sierra Leone and Liberia. There have also been cases in neighboring West African countries, the United States and Europe. On Dec. 9, the World Health Organization said Sierra Leone has overtaken Liberia as the country with the most cases.

Over 2,000 people had died from the virus in Sierra Leone as of Dec.19, according to the country’s Ministry of Health and Sanitation’s latest figures, released Dec. 19.

Men who survive Ebola also have to take precautions in the months after having the virus. According to the World Health Organization, Ebola can be present in the semen of survivors for up to three months after they have recovered. The organization advises Ebola survivors to abstain from sex for three months to protect their partners from infection.

Lansana Conteh, the program manager in the health education division for the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, said it is raising public awareness about the practices of safe sex through radio announcements and by having counselors talk to survivors.

“We want people to know the risk involved, and we tell them with condoms, there are still risks involved, so it’s better to abstain altogether for the three months, if possible,” he said.

He added that the ministry is starting programs to provide therapy for couples dealing with Ebola. 

Nongovernmental organizations are stepping up to raise awareness.

Freetown’s office of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, which previously focused on HIV/AIDS prevention, is now also teaching safe sex practices to prevent Ebola.

Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in October warned that without international intervention, Ebola could become the next HIV/AIDS.

Idrissa Sanoh, a 21-year-old who survived Ebola in September, said he’s choosing to abstain from sexual activity. His girlfriend died from Ebola while the two of them were helping care for his father, who also died from the virus.

“At times I feel frustrated. I miss my girlfriend. But I leave it to God,” he said. “I thank him I’m alive.”

Hasan Bangura, 26, said he and his girlfriend stopped having sex for a couple of months starting in August because they were scared and didn’t understand how the disease was spread.

He said they decided it was safe to become sexually active again because they know how to protect themselves from contracting Ebola from others in their daily routines, such as proper hand washing. They are in a monogamous relationship and use condoms. He said most of his male friends are not taking the same precautions.

Ebola has also affected relationships between those living in the country and abroad.

December is normally the most festive month in Sierra Leone, with the diaspora flooding into Freetown to reunite with friends and family. Many return home for weddings, but there appears to be a lull this year, according to wedding planner Rugie Wurie, who is based in the United Kingdom and is from Sierra Leone.

She said her business has come to a standstill since the Ebola outbreak. All five weddings she was arranging in Sierra Leone were canceled this year. She estimates that she lost approximately $40,000 in decorations and stock she bought in expectation of the events.

She said the hardest part, though, is watching her country fall apart. It was just starting to get back on its feet after a brutal 11-year civil war and was moving toward becoming a tourism destination. She had hoped to contribute to that through her wedding planning business.

“I wanted to put us on a map for something positive,” Wurie said. “Sierra Leone is stylish in its own way and so beautiful. Our people, our beaches — I wanted to package that and sell it to the world. But I’m not giving up. One day Sierra Leone will be a destination wedding place.”

Theresa Tenneh Conteh, who lives in Freetown, was supposed to get married this month to her husband, who lives in the United States. They’ve decided to postpone.

“I miss him, and he can't even come to Sierra Leone because when he returns to the USA, he may be put into quarantine,” she said. “We haven't been refunded for many of the things we paid for up front, such as catering. It’s putting a strain on the relationship, and we are finding it difficult to hold the love alive.”

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